Tagged collaboration



Peter M. Gray, Queensborough Community College
Renee McGarry, Sotheby’s Institute of Art

1. There are articles here on collaboration and mentoring. We like them. We think you’ll like them, too.

2. We began our own years-long series of collaborations in the early 2000s, first in a graduate seminar focused on pedagogy for interdisciplinary graduate students, and then later extending our work together to professional presentations. We have seen our professional relationship shift and grow through our various kinds of collaborations, have weathered it when it has become fraught and complicated and messy. We have celebrated it when it has felt rewarding (and produced welcome results), when it has provoked us. And we continue to value collaboration and mentorship as fundamental to how we work within our different areas of academia. This special section has allowed us to cultivate writers who take up ideas around mentorship and collaboration in interesting ways, and we’ve welcomed the opportunity to work with them.

3. With much of our lives woven through shared Google Docs, around Twitter feeds, and with visits to LinkedIn, the spaces where personal and professional collaboration happen have become ubiquitous — once there were the Yellow Pages, now there is Yelp. Facebook, for example, has for some become useful “for professional conversations and [as] a social network that enables users to create and maintain social capital” (Briggs). This special section, as you will read, helps us think more slowly, with more clarity, about how and why we might use and revise our uses of interactive technology a writers, as teachers, as colleagues.

4. The writers collected here for this special section think large, pushing our uses of interactive technologies toward serving and enhancing international service-learning projects (Oppenheim, O’Shea, and Sclar). They also consider the pedagogical implications and complexities of mentoring in graduate and undergraduate course work: Macaulay-Lewis articulates a project for graduate students to develop digital skills that will serve them professionally, while Crocco challenges undergraduate writers through critical simulation pedagogy to collaborate on joint projects. Others, like Kuhn, Wipfli, Lipshin and Ruiz, place their seemingly disparate courses together pedagogically in order to enhance the intellectual experience of both courses. Skallerup Bessette tests our assumptions about how we represent collaboration (and how we recognize collaborative academic work: variously, inconsistently) through narrating her experience in a Twitter community around #FYCchat (take a look and jump into the fray). Zabrowski and Rivers formally enact their inquiry into their own mentorship and collaborative relationship, reflecting on rhetorical and material “space” in intriguing ways.

5. In this time of (relatively) easy heightened interaction through technologies, we holler encouragement to friends around the globe in comment sections, we make suggestions, we offer critique. We hope you consider this section as an invitation to do the same.

Peter M. Gray and Renee McGarry, Issue Co-Editors


Briggs, Timothy J. 2012. “Writing a Professional Life on Facebook.” Kairos 17 (2). n.p. http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/17.2/disputatio/briggs/index.html



The Place(s) of Mentorship and Collaboration / By Katie Zabrowski and Nathaniel Rivers

The Place(s) of Mentorship and Collaboration

Katie Zabrowski, Saint Louis University
Nathaniel Rivers, Saint Louis University


This video production reflects on the place(s) where mentorship and collaboration occur between doctoral student Katie and her advisor Nathaniel. Featuring both of their voices, the video moves through the spaces in which they work and collaborate, seeking to understand how those spaces’ materiality and organization affect the mentoring that emerges within them. The video takes up this inquiry through a collaborative analysis of a shared working place—a local coffee roaster specializing in pour over brewing—as a material blueprint for a particular kind of mentorship marked first and foremost by collaboration.

Featured throughout the video are reflections upon materiality from scholars working within various fields, but who all impact studies in rhetoric and composition—Katie and Nathaniel’s disciplinary home. Many of these thinkers and the lines of thought within which they work treat materiality as having rhetorical efficacy, and so too does this project credit material spaces and their aggregate parts as rhetorically impacting and shaping the human interactions that occur within and among them.

Music featured in this video:

Music “I Need to Start Writing Things Down” by Chris Zabriskie
Available on the Free Music Archive
Under CC BY license

Music “Readers! Do You Read?” by Chris Zabriskie
Available on the Free Music Archive
Under CC BY license


Katie: In the early days of writing my dissertation I established a standing date with a 12 oz. coffee and a croissant. Every Friday morning I and the materials of my dissertation made our way to a local spot, Blueprint Coffee, to spend the morning drafting – word by word, sentence by sentence, section by section, and, eventually, chapter by chapter – the tallest project of my graduate career.

Nathaniel: Writers are nomads in search of a place, and a coffee shop is an oasis for such weary travelers: the right mix of hustle and bustle, sound and silence, caffeine and calorie. A place to be wired and wireless. A medium for a medium.

Katie: It was the ambience of this architecturally-themed spot that invited me to return week after week. With its drafting tables and stools, crisp white subway tiles, and smooth stainless steel counter tops, the space is a cluttered mind’s sweet retreat into organization of the most satisfying kind. What’s more, the space and its curators exude a palpable hospitality, a concept which is, coincidentally, the support beam upon which my dissertation project rests.

Nathaniel: Blueprint speaks to and through Katie’s work. It speaks to me too as Katie’s mentor, and models what I have come to recognize as my approach to mentoring. The performance of coffee resonates with the arrangement of the location. There is casual fastidiousness to the place. There is an earnestness in the effort to make coffee visible as an activity – like a building once built that still celebrates it blueprints. The operation of making coffee – cupping, roasting, brewing, and experiments across all three–is performed in public. And so my mentoring amounts to discussing blueprints, my own as well as Katie’s. My own struggles with research and writing. What I’m working on, how I am responding to reviews and other feedback. Whatever advice I brew, its brewing is a part of its delivery.

Katie: There is always, first, the offer of a glass of water upon placing your coffee order. Then there is the request of your name which will in turn not be written on a paper cup and exclaimed into the crowd, but spoke with a caring tone as you’re served tableside, as if in the home of a friend. As unique to this place as its address, is its hospitable treatment of the coffee beans – ground finely with a special grinder, brewed by hand with water heated to a precise and bean-friendly temperature.

At a certain point it occurred to me: this space and its materials are more than places listed in my weekly calendar but co-collaborators in the project planning and writing that emerges there. I began documenting my work in this space with Instagram pictures; pictures to which my advisor would often respond with words of encouragement. And eventually it began to happen that this space became a blueprint for our mentoring relationship, which always had been but was slowly seeing refinement as one marked first and foremost by collaboration.

Nathaniel: Writers are nomads in search of a medium. Place is a medium, and a medium can be a place. A medium makes a place by pulling together disparate elements together. Place is a mediated aggregate of actors and forces. Place is a collaborator. Blueprint opens itself up to those working with/in it. It is friendly, forthcoming. Place is a mentor. Blueprint is a place for unique forms of engagement and exchange.

Places can work with us. They can also, of course, work against us. Because a place is not some inert container it can resist as much as rewards. Place, like any collaborator, can be unreliable. Colleagues must be chosen wisely. Sometimes an oasis is a mirage.

Katie: With our explicit attention to the places in time that we chose to share, we begin to notice not only all the places in which we formally met, but also where informal collaboration occurred all the time – in the margins of what we were reading, in Instagram photos and comments, in the line-by-line notes made upon chapters under review, and in written and verbal responses to those remarks when we met to review chapters, and in our respective working spaces. Blueprint periodically stabilized this complex collection of collaborations, drawing us in with its unique, ambient qualities. With those qualities, we continually built and maintained a place for mentoring as collaborative.

The many and diverse occasions upon which our thinking became merged eventually became habitual. The spaces of our collaboration built also the shape of our mentoring relationship outside of those spaces.

About the Authors

Katie Zabrowski is a doctoral candidate with an emphasis in rhetoric and composition in the English department at Saint Louis University. Her current research articulates hospitality as the ethic upon which rhetoric operates. Engaging hospitality as both material and discursive, she works through new materialism’s implications for rhetoric and writing to propose ways in which pedagogies might be mobilized hospitably in rhetoric and composition classrooms. Her work has appeared in Kairos andenculturation. She tweets at@katethegrater.

Nathaniel A. Rivers is an Associate Professor of English at Saint Louis University. His current research addresses new materialism’s impact on public rhetorics such as environmentalism and urban design. Together with Paul Lynch, he edited Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition (SIUP 2015), which explores the impact of Bruno Latour on rhetorical theory, composition pedagogy, and research methodologies across both. His work has appeared in journals such as College Composition and Communication, Kairos,Technical Communication Quarterly, enculturation,Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, and Rhetoric Review. He tweets at@sophist_monster.

Figure 9. A map of Guavaland.

Simulating Utopia: Critical Simulation and the Teaching of Utopia

Francesco Crocco, Borough of Manhattan Community College

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

—Oscar Wilde

This essay describes an experiment with critical simulation—the pedagogical application of simulation to foster critical thinking. I theorize this technique in comparison to standard simulation pedagogies and point out some examples of existing simulations and games that achieve similar results. In order to model critical simulation pedagogy for post-secondary education, I describe one instance of this technique that occurred in an elective course on utopian literature I taught at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of The City University of New York, a bustling community college in downtown Manhattan with a majority African-American and Hispanic working-class student population. In the course, I assigned students to work in groups to design a multimedia brochure for an intentional community (i.e., a planned residential community that is a social experiment in utopian living).

During the semester, students worked in groups to draft pieces of the project in response to in-class “challenge” assignments that asked them to devise solutions to social, political, economic, and environmental problems. They then used this material to assemble brochures, which they presented to the class at the end of the semester. Throughout this process, students engaged course texts both as resources for invention and as artifacts for critical evaluation.

My hypothesis was that by turning students into active producers of utopia via a critical simulation they would be in a better position to meet course objectives, namely to learn the conventions of utopian discourse and to adopt a critical utopian frame for evaluating utopian texts and real-world phenomena. I evaluated my hypothesis by interrogating the finished products and analyzing debriefing surveys conducted at the end of the semester. The results suggest critical simulation is a promising technique that complements traditional forms of instruction and has much to offer instructors interested in promoting critical thinking, regardless of discipline. They also raise some interesting questions about the relationship between pedagogy, critical thinking, and social change.

Simulations and Learning

Simulations are simplified models of reality intended to teach specific learning objectives (Hertel and Millis 2002, 17). Advocates for simulation pedagogies tout their potential to motivate students, foster deep learning, achieve learning objectives, enable student-centered learning, and bridge disciplinary gaps (Hertel and Millis 2002, 1-14). As a pedagogical technique, simulations have the advantage of providing what James Gee calls situated meaning—the association of verbal instruction with “images, actions, experiences, or dialogue in a real or imagined world” that enrich learning (Gee 2007, 105). Gee observes that situated meaning provides an ideal environment for learning because

People learn (academic or non-academic) specialist languages and their concomitant ways of thinking best when they can tie the words and structures of those languages to experiences they have had—experiences with which they can build simulations to prepare themselves for action in the domains in which the specialist language is used (e.g. biology or video games). (Gee 2004, 4)

By modeling reality, simulations offer learners the ability to “tie the words and structures” of the new domains they are learning to “experiences they have had,” thereby consolidating and deepening their understanding of the new domain by embodying the new knowledge in lived experience.

Simulations have a long history of pedagogical application. The earliest educational uses of simulations focused on military training. These include the Chinese war game “Weihai” developed around 3000 BCE (which later became the Japanese game “Go”) and the sixth-century CE Indian war game “Chaturanga” (a precursor to Chess) (Gilliom 1974, 265). Modern military simulations emerged in 1798 with the introduction of large-scale battle simulations conducted by the Prussian army (Gilliom 1974, 265-66). In the twentieth-century, the U.S. military became a trendsetter in the field, and its wide-scale adoption of simulation and gaming technologies for training and recruitment facilitated the entry of these techniques into the corporate and educational sectors (Mead 2013).

Simulations began to garner significant support outside of the U.S. military in the 1950s. In 1956, members of the American Management Association traveled to the Naval War College and were so impressed by the Navy’s use of training simulations that they were inspired to produce the first widely used management game for corporate training. Boeing and several other companies responded by launching their own training simulations (Gilliom 1974, 266). By the 1960s, growing research and speculation on the benefits of educational simulations drew the attention of elementary and secondary school educators and administrators, who subsequently began to embrace the technique, first by adopting commercial simulations, later by designing their own (Gilliom 1974, 266-67). Then, by the early 1970s, post-secondary education began to follow suit with the adoption of simulations in business, political science, international relations, sociology, psychology, foreign language, and education programs (Gilliom 1974, 270-71).

Simulations and games also gained traction among writing and literature instructors in post-secondary education. Since at least the early 1970s, post-secondary teachers of English composition and literature have experimented with the use of simulations and games to optimize literacy skills and deepen understanding of course texts (Brewbaker 1972, 105). Lynn Q. Troyka produced the first full-length study of the topic with her doctoral dissertation, “A Study of the Effect of Simulation-Gaming on Expository Prose Competence of College Remedial English Composition Students” (New York University 1973), later published with co-author Jerold Nudelman as Taking Action: Writing, Reading, Speaking, and Listening through Simulation-Games (1975). The volume documents six simulations for the English classroom and provides materials to reproduce them. Troyka and Nudelman’s book has been followed by a significant number of studies that focus on the documentation, theorization, or evaluation of simulation- and game-based approaches to the teaching of writing and literature (Sloan 1978; Kroll 1986; McCann 1996; Saliés 2002, 2007; Nash 2007; Kovalik and Kovalik 2007; Colby and Colby 2008; Alexander 2009; Krause 2010; Colby, Johnson, and Colby 2013). These studies demonstrate the rich history and potential of simulations for the teaching of writing and literature specifically, and signal their value for post-secondary education generally.

Standard Simulation Versus Critical Simulation

In each instance discussed above—the military, corporate America, and (higher) education—simulations have been embraced for their uncanny ability to engage learners and situate meaning in ways that optimize the acquisition of a particular domain, be it military tactics, business practices, or discursive fields. These cases share a standard mode of simulation that I call simulation for social reproduction, in which the goal is to impart a certain specialized body of knowledge, methods, or terminology in order to assimilate the learner to an existing domain and thereby reproduce that domain. By participating in domain-based simulations, the learner comes to adopt what David Shaffer calls the epistemic frame of that domain—“the conventions of participation that individuals internalize when they become acculturated [to a domain]” (Shaffer 2005, n.p.). Simulation for social reproduction achieves its learning objectives when the learner has assimilated to the ways of thinking (i.e., the epistemic frame) intrinsic to the domain that is being modeled.

Figure 1. Simulation for Social Reproduction

Figure 1. Simulation for Social Reproduction

In the standard simulation for social reproduction, then, simulation is used to bridge the classroom “sandbox” and the real-world domain (see Figure 1). By situating meaning in the classroom, the simulation facilitates transition from domain “outsider” to “insider,” thereby assimilating the learner to an existing domain and the social order to which it belongs.

Simulation for social reproduction can be highly desirable, especially in cases where mastering a domain carries life and death consequences, such as in the use of flight simulators to safely and effectively train the next generation of pilots. Yet, while the engaging and immersive meaning-making environments at the heart of standard simulations may excel at drawing in and assimilating learners to a new domain, by the same token they make it difficult for learners to think critically about those domains, a process that requires distance and defamiliarization. Ira Shor defines critical thinking as:

habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Shor 1992, 129)

Because critical thinking seeks not only to understand but to evaluate domains, a new method of simulation must be devised that poses the subject matter of the new domain not as a body of knowledge to be assimilated and mastered, but as a problem to be analyzed and solved. In this way, the learner can adopt “habits of thought” that make it possible for one to “understand the deep meaning” of the new domain and make critical evaluations.

This new kind of simulation, what I call critical simulation, is one approach to practicing critical gaming pedagogy, a model I theorized elsewhere as a technique for using simulation and gaming “to promote critical thinking about hegemonic ideas or institutions rather than to propagate them” (Crocco 2011, 29). Essentially, conventional uses of simulation and gaming for education, which are often promoted as alternatives to the traditional factory model of education, in fact, upgrade this model for a twenty-first century high-tech economy—effectively delivering the factory model 2.0 (Crocco 2011, 29). This complicity with the traditional aims of schooling is evident in the distinction between standard and critical simulation. Whereas the goal of standard simulation is to use simplified models of reality to assimilate the learner as efficiently and effectively as possible into the domain being simulated, critical simulation resists the ideological closure of assimilation by presenting models of reality that defamiliarize the domain in question and pose it as a problem to be investigated and resolved. If successful, the critical simulation will produce cognitive dissonance between one’s pre-conceived notions about a domain and the new experiences generated by the simulation; this opens up a space for critical reflection and analysis. Consequently, instead of moving the learner from a domain outsider to an insider, the critical simulation moves the learner from an uncritical point-of-view to a critical point-of-view about that domain (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. A critical simulation.

Figure 2. A critical simulation.

While this theorization of critical simulation is new, there are many instances of simulations and games in secondary and post-secondary education that operate like critical simulations. The list of applicable simulations and games includes those designed to challenge economic policies by raising awareness about the effects of social inequality (Schulzke 2013; Norris 2013; Ansoms and Greenen 2012; Fisher 2012; Crocco 2011; Dundes and Harlow 2005; Thatcher and Robinson 1990), address the lack of civic engagement (Bernstein and Meizlish 2003; Raphael et al. 2010) and empathy (Bachen, Hernández-Ramos, and Raphael 2012; Barak et al. 1987), explore the problem of climate change (Sterman et al. 2014; Lee et al. 2013), question urban planning models in light of sustainability concerns (Gaber 2007; Torres and Macedo 2000), re-enact and problematize history (McCall 2011; see also the Barnard College Reacting to the Past series), and teach critical methods for approaching the social sciences (Simpson and Elias 2011; Martin 1979). In seeking to design so-called “games for change,” activists, NGOs, and state agencies have also developed critical simulations. These games and simulations situate the player in contexts where adversity or moral quandaries lead to a re-examination of held beliefs or prevailing logics, thereby moving the player toward a new, more critical understanding of the subject matter. For instance, in the video game 3rd World Farmer, players simulate the experience of a farmer in a developing nation in order to unsettle preconceptions about the etiology of third-world poverty and make explicit its relation to centers of power in the first world. The McDonald’s Video Game puts players at the helm of this transnational corporation and requires them to resolve moral quandaries in which they must weigh profit margins against workers rights, consumer health, and environmental protection. By factoring in these externalized costs of doing business, players can challenge the conventional business ethics and decisions that typical management simulations tend to normalize. These examples demonstrate how critical simulations situate learning within models of reality in ways that problematize rather than preserve established domains or hegemonic beliefs.

Why Use Critical Simulation for Teaching Utopia?

I decided to employ the methods of critical simulation in my course on utopian literature for several reasons. For one thing, both share an emphasis on critical thinking. In Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (1986), the philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes that utopias are vital for the critique of ideology:

This is my conviction: the only way to get out of the circularity in which ideologies engulf us is to assume a utopia, declare it, and judge an ideology on this basis. Because the absolute onlooker is impossible, then it is someone within the process itself who takes the responsibility for judgment. (Ricoeur 1986, 172-73)

If utopia can be described as a “space of hope” that inspires “social dreaming” (Sargent 2010, 5) and nourishes “the desire for a better way of being” (Levitas 1990, 198), Ricoeur adds that it is also, and as importantly, a “space of criticism” that provides a critical vantage on ideology. This parallelism between critical thinking and utopia raises two important conclusions about teaching utopia with simulation. For one thing, since utopia is fundamentally concerned with teaching critical habits of mind—both about other domains and its own—it cannot be paired with standard simulations, which mainly achieve the goal of training and assimilation rather than critical reflection and analysis. Secondly, because the utopian frame—the knowledge, methods, and terminology that comprise utopian discourse—is consonant with critical habits of mind, the experience of deploying critical simulation in a utopian classroom will, paradoxically, have the added effect of achieving the rather orthodox goal of the standard simulation, i.e., specialized training in an epistemic frame, in this case the utopian frame.

In addition to posing critiques of what is, critical simulations and utopias also share in common the desire to imagine alternative configurations for what could be. Ernst Bloch captures this dialectic between critique and creativity by describing utopian thought as “anticipatory consciousness,” the “Not-Yet-Conscious” that “wants to look far into the distance … in order to penetrate the darkness so near” (Bloch 1986, 1:11-12). Scholars have attempted to articulate a “utopian pedagogy” to promote this critical/creative consciousness, noting that whereas the purpose of education is typically “to produce social subjects for the perpetuation of the neoliberal order,” the goal of utopian pedagogy should be “to foster experiments in thinking and action that lead us away from that order” and “point us towards…‘the coming communities’” (Coté, Day, and De Peuter 2007, 14-15, italics in the original). Different strategies have been proposed to achieve the goals of utopian pedagogy. In the tradition of critical pedagogy, for instance, a high value is placed on the relations of power in the classroom. By replacing the one-way “banking model” of education (in which information is “deposited” into students’ heads and “withdrawn” for tests) with a democratic classroom in which power is decentered, authority is shared, and decisions about curriculum are negotiated (Freire 2002; Shor 1996), critical pedagogy models utopia in the present. On the other hand, even if such a democratic space could be constructed within an otherwise hierarchical educational institution the result may be what Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis call a miniutopia—an ephemeral classroom utopia that leaves students “lacking a political understanding of their predicament” (Bowles and Gintis 1976, 255). Consequently, Nichole Stanford suggests that, by neglecting to teach students how to apply the democratic processes of the classroom to real-life circumstances, miniutopian pedagogies “can wind up reifying existing social conditions in the same way that traditional pedagogy does,” either by promoting escapism or leaving students to blame themselves for their inability to assimilate successfully (Stanford 2012, 7-8). What is missing from most utopian models, including critical pedagogy, is the simulation of change or transition from the old social structure to the new. Alternatively, Stanford proposes using the classroom as a “safe house” in which students get to practice how to critique, negotiate, and change society by problem-posing real-world conflicts, beginning with organizing to negotiate changes with the representative authority, the teacher (Stanford 2012, 10). Critical simulation combines elements from both of these approaches: it imagines utopia in the present by decentering the classroom with interactive experiences in which students learn by making decisions and evaluating outcomes, and these experiences involve practicing how to negotiate real-world problems and devise alternatives to the status quo. The difference between problem-posing in social reproduction simulation and critical simulation lies in what is allowed to be a problem: like the safe house model that invites students to change their real circumstances, critical simulation poses current power structures as the problem.

Finally, critical simulations and utopia resemble each other because utopia is itself a kind of critical simulation. In “How to Play Utopia,” Michael Holquist compares chess to utopia, suggesting that “the comparison of chess to battle is roughly parallel to the relationship which obtains between utopia and society” (Holquist 1968, 107). Both, he argues, are simulations that present simplified models of reality—the battlefield and the polis—in which players have the opportunity to replay history and speculate different outcomes. Where the chess player may re-enact historical battles using specialized chess sets carved to resemble particular armies and eras, the player of utopia replays social evolution to produce different kinds of civilizations. In this process, “The irreversibility of history is stemmed, and outcomes determined by the contingency of actual experience, can, in utopia, be reversed in the freedom of the utopist’s imagination… Utopia is play with ideas” (Holquist 1968, 119). Viewed in this manner as a kind of grand simulation, an elaborate “what if” in which authors “play with ideas” in order to imagine different social outcomes, utopias operate like critical simulations: both involve critical thinking, decision-making, and speculation about possible futures.

Designing a Critical Simulation for Teaching Utopia

If utopia is itself an exercise in critical simulation, one in which authors design alternative futures that critique and inspire, what better way for students to learn about utopia than by imitating this process? Students in my course would become designers of utopia, and in doing so they would practice the critical habits of mind intrinsic to the utopian frame and situate their understanding of utopian texts within an embodied experience of utopian design. While a design-based approach to teaching language and literature is not new—it was famously promulgated by the New London Group (of which James Gee was a member) as a pedagogy for multiliteracy (Cazden et al. 1996), this application in a utopian literature course provides a case study for how such a method might work to situate meaning using the techniques of critical simulation.

Figure 3. A critical simulation for a utopian literature course.

Figure 3. A critical simulation for a utopian literature course.

The critical simulation I designed took the form of a semester-long cooperative / competitive game in which five teams of students designed intentional communities—actually existing social experiments in utopian living. Students developed the designs for their communities through a semester-long iterative process that involved engaging with course texts to prepare solutions to a list of contemporary social problems. They assembled this work into a multimedia digital brochure for an intentional community that each team presented to the class at the end of the semester, which provided a gratifying sense of closure to the course. The classroom thus became a sandbox for utopia: students simulated the experience of designing utopia, and this experience helped them move from using an uncritical initial frame to a critical utopian frame while simultaneously moving them away from being outsiders to becoming insiders in the discourse by providing opportunities to engage course texts and concepts (see Figure 3).

This semester-long process of utopian design was stoked by periodic “challenges”—in-class assignments that followed discussions of course texts in which the class collectively problem-posed some aspect of society criticized in that week’s reading material, and then worked in teams to develop innovative solutions. The challenge themes isolated different components of the conceptual work required to produce an intentional community: (1) the distribution of work and resources; (2) gender roles; (3) education and healthcare; (4) spirituality and well being; (5) government, freedom, and international relations; (6) consumption and waste management; (7) energy and environment; and (8) urban and suburban planning. In the spirit of Ernst Bloch’s conception of the “not yet,” each challenge began with a critique of what is and followed with a discussion of what could or should be. The course texts provided useful resources for this process by modeling utopian critiques and alternatives, but also by furnishing raw material for the students’ designs. The texts included selections from Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent Harlequin,’ Said the Ticktockman,” Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I also assigned students to read about intentional communities past and present. They read about Charles Fourier’s phalanxes, Robert Owen’s cooperatives, Icarian communes, Brook Farm, the Oneida Community, Shaker villages, and contemporary intentional communities. To round out the course material, students examined urban and suburban planning blueprints, such as Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City of Tomorrow,” and viewed clips from several documentary films that addressed social and environmental concerns.

While the design process constituted a single, semester-long critical simulation, each individual challenge was the equivalent of a mini-critical simulation that targeted a specific issue in order to provoke awareness and inspire creative alternatives. Through this process, the domains under consideration—e.g., economics, ecology, urban and suburban planning, etc.—were reframed as problems to be solved rather than as normative discourses to be learned and internalized. While the course texts initially served as touchstones for utopian critique and storehouses of fresh ideas, as students became empowered utopian producers in their own right they began to question the texts and treat them as much as codifications of ideology as the domains they scrutinized. At the conclusion of each challenge round, the teams would present their work, provide constructive feedback for revision, and select the most innovative design, after which I would award nominal prizes. They recorded their work on a group blog, which simultaneously functioned as a drafting site for the final digital brochure, a forum for instructor feedback, and a communication hub for the team. This multi-stage, design-based critical simulation enhanced rather than displaced the more traditional pedagogical methods used in the course, such as reading, writing, and discussion. It also integrated the major learning outcomes for the course—reading comprehension, critical analysis, and intellectual production—into a single, unified process.

The digital brochures assembled from the raw material of the challenge assignments were required to have four parts: (a) a common mission statement outlining the history, goals and purpose of the community; (b) a description of a typical day in the life of the community; (c) a visual blueprint for a town, village, or city in the community; and, since it was a brochure after all, (d) information about how to join the community. The final products took the form of colorful slideshows, PDFs, and websites. The components for these brochures were copied in part from the Fellowship for Intentional Community website, a promotional catalog of ongoing experiments in “practical” utopias that students were asked to peruse at one point in the semester. Since the website included mission statements, photographs, and contact information for each listing, we used it as a model for the students’ digital brochures.

While the intentional communities website provided a handy model for the students’ projects, it was not my only or even primary motivation for having students design their final projects as digital brochures. This decision hinged on other factors, as well. I chose mass media and marketing genres for this assignment because the goal of “selling” utopia to an audience and recruiting utopians resonates with the persuasive thrust of utopian literature. From Plato’s Republic to More’s Utopia to Callenbach’s Ecotopia and beyond, one finds a common pattern in which the author, through the intermediation of critical or skeptical narrators and interlocutors, attempts to persuade the reader that a better world is possible. This does not necessarily imply that the author has (or even wants) a blueprint for utopia, but it does make persuasion an explicit part of the bargain. Thus, in the same way that a brochure is rhetorically intentioned to sell a product, utopian literature is often rhetorically intentioned to sell an idea—about how one should live or not live. Of course, adopting the format of the brochure—a product so keyed to capitalist commodification and consumerism—for utopian discourse—which is decidedly anti-capitalist—may seem paradoxical. But a crucial part of critical simulation is challenging students to imagine ways to transition from one social system to another; in this scenario, they appropriate existing capitalist tools to launch anti-capitalist structures. Finally, I decided to use a digital format for the brochures because it offered the most versatile tools for taking the different media the students had drafted in the challenge assignments and assembling them into a single document. This material included text, images from the web, sound bites, video clips, photographs, and even hand drawings (one challenge required students to draw a resource map for their community). The final product was a virtual bricolage of a semester’s worth of crafting in the service of utopian social dreaming.

Welcome to Utopias!

The students presented five brochures for intentional communities at the end of the semester: Halo, a tourism and export-based island resort; Vacileeco Palati, a high-tech new-Atlantean commune; Northern Green, a secessionist eco-commune; Guavaland, an agrarian autarky with sprinkles of futuristic technology; and Phoenix, a back-to-nature libertarian community of individual producers. These unique designs display a wealth of critical engagement with contemporary issues and course texts, as well as a keen sense of adaptation and invention. While there is some interesting overlap between the designs, there are also many key differences. In the paragraphs that follow, I provide an overview of each intentional community using snippets of text and images from the brochures. I also highlight where and how the projects engage with course material and problem-pose aspects of contemporary society, thereby meeting my objectives for this application of critical simulation.

Figure 4. Halo cover image.

Figure 4. Halo cover image.

Halo is a tropical island paradise catering to the promises and pleasures of the resort industry (see Figure 4). The brochure flaunts, “Everyday feels like you’re on vacation.” Halo’s geography evokes More’s island of Utopus with its familiar crescent shape (see Figure 5 below), but here the similarities end. High-rise resort buildings, private bungalows, and cruise ships dot the coasts, providing a major source of revenue for the island. This revenue is distributed equitably among all citizens and ensures an ever-increasing quality of life for the entire community. In return, citizens are required to work eight hours a day and participate in town hall meetings where decisions are made by consensus. Haloans value diversity, yet discourage religion because “such ideologies … promote sexism, racism, and other common inequalities.” They also value a stress-free lifestyle and “strive to eliminate the factor of anomie that is often found within your typical western societies.”

Figure 5. A map of Halo.

Figure 5. A map of Halo.

Halo’s design is clearly influenced by the meme of an island utopia first established by More’s seminal text. But its emphasis on leisure—both in terms of its clever marketing scheme and its economy—draws upon different sources. In this respect, Halo finds inspiration in Thoreau’s Walden and Ellison’s “‘Repent Harlequin’,” texts that challenge the self-destructive effects of undue busyness and mindless consumerism. In this regard, Halo’s rejection of the stressful, multi-tasking, productivity-obsessed, and acquisitive lifestyle of Western consumer society constitutes its most poignant social critique. Yet, it achieves this critical distance not by copying the escapist or subversive logics of Thoreau and Ellison’s texts, respectively, but by embracing and transmogrifying the commodity logic of the globalized leisure economy. Halo is only tenable because it complies with the circuit of work and leisure that sustains the dizzying rhythm of life in modern society. Yet, it tempers its participation in this status-quo macro-economy with a micro-economy that stresses communal forms of decision-making and equitable resource distribution. Its scheme is based on the socialization of that which already exists—namely the tourist-based export economies shaped by trans-national capital and International Monetary Fund policies to service weary laborers from the more affluent nations.

Figure 6. A diagram of Vacileeco Palati.

Figure 6. A diagram of Vacileeco Palati.

Part Baconian new Atlantis, part Jules Verne science fiction, Vacileeco Palati (Greek for  “underwater kingdom”) is an underwater, self-propelled domed city consisting of a central forum ringed by dormitories, utilities, and farms, and navigable by trains and walking paths (see Figure 6). The city was designed to solve the twin problems of overpopulation and resource depletion by taking to the oceans in search of new resources. The inventive Palatians place a premium on discovering and circulating knowledge, and thus prefer to recruit scientists and artists. They are a communal society where all citizens are guaranteed employment, education, and healthcare, while private property and money are banned. The work week alternates between urban and agricultural labor. The political system rewards hard work with leadership roles, and the highest governing body is the “Board of the Wise.”

Vacileeco Palati is an interesting hybrid of concepts from several course texts, and also draws from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which was not a course text. As a floating island, Vacileeco Palati is an interesting spin on More’s Utopus and Bacon’s Bensalem. It shares with More’s Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis, and Plato’s Republic a preference for knowledge and learning. The moneyless, communist economy constitutes a sharp break from modern capitalist societies and coheres with the rejection of money and private property in More, Plato, and Bellamy. In terms of the political system, the practice of rewarding hard work with leadership roles resembles Bellamy’s plan for an “industrial army” in Looking Backward, while the idea of the “Board of the Wise” recalls Plato’s “guardians” and Bacon’s “Salomon’s House.” The rotation of the workweek between urban and agricultural labor is an interesting adaptation of More’s seasonal work rotations. Meanwhile, the ringed layout of the city bears more than a passing resemblance to Howard’s “Garden City of Tomorrow.” Finally, the threatening backdrop of overpopulation and resource depletion recalls the warnings of Callenbach’s Ecotopia and Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Overall, this resourceful, hybrid design demonstrates a critical rejection of the individualism, acquisitiveness, and resource-depleting tendencies of capitalist society. Its alternative, though inspired by course texts, borrows and innovates what is desirable, rejects what is not.

Figure 7. Northern Green cover page.

Figure 7. Northern Green cover page.

Northern Californian Coastal Community, Northern Green for short, is a sovereign country founded in the year 2025 in a part of California that seceded from the United States. The mission of this eco-commune is to achieve an “ecologically sustainable, off-grid powered existence.” This central pre-occupation with sustainability is thematically expressed in the layout and imagery of its brochure (see Figure 7). To realize its mission, the Greens limit their population to 200,000, rely on renewable energy, and grow everything they need. The Greens are communitarian and democratic. Everyone is expected to work, resources are owned in common, and wealth is equally distributed using a credit card system.

The line of influence from a single course text is perhaps most pronounced with Northern Green. The placement, history, “green” ethos, and marketing aesthetic suggest a community that is clearly inspired by Callenbach’s Ecotopia and its critique of an ecologically and psychologically unsustainable industrial society. Ecotopia is similarly located on the western coast of the former United States, having seceded from the Union over various environmental and political concerns, and professing an equally “green” sensibility. Both utopias reject industrialism, consumerism, alienating urban metropolises, and the concept of infinite growth that propels capitalist societies. And yet, there are also significant differences between them. Northern Green rejects key elements of Ecotopia, such as its emphasis on decentralized, small crafts production, and the continuation of racial segregation. Rather than slavishly imitate Ecotopia, Northern Green turns to other course texts for inspiration. The equal credit system recalls the credit system from Looking Backward, while the idea of garden cities references Howard’s early designs for suburbia.

Figure 8. Guavaland's Myspace page.

Figure 8. Guavaland’s Myspace page.

The tropical island utopia, Guavaland, is as hip as its Myspace page. This inventive team of utopian engineers decided to advertise their community on Myspace, where visitors are greeted by automated steel pan music and lush, tropical images (see Figure 8). Guavaland blends natural beauty with technological sophistication, boasting a futuristic steel-and-glass metropolis bursting out of a pristine jungle. Guavaland is a commonwealth comprised of five villages and a central city, Guava City, which form a pentagram design (see Figure 9). Wind turbines ring the coastline and trolley lines connect each village. The Guavalanders value cooperation over individualism and enjoy free education and healthcare. Their major industry is agriculture and they believe in “natural living.” They seek “hardworking men and women” who “are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the community” and who “are ready and willing to leave the fast-paced life behind and enjoy the splendor of the easy-going life.”

Figure 9. A map of Guavaland.

Figure 9. A map of Guavaland.

Guavaland is similar to Halo in its rejection of the “fast-paced life” that plagues many modern industrial and post-industrial societies. However, it rejects becoming inscribed within the globalized economics of the commodified leisure industry that Halo occupies. It embraces, instead, an agrarian economy that emphasizes self-sufficiency, natural living, and renewable resources. In these respects, Guavaland bears more than a passing resemblance to Ecotopia. But it also borrows from other sources. For instance, the commonwealth system and communitarian values evoke More’s Utopia, while the pentagram layout of its suburban villages is a novel interpretation of Howard’s garden city design. The science-fiction feel and look of Guava City seems misplaced in this communitarian eco-village. But it also promises that nature and technology can successfully co-exist.

Figure 10. Phoenix rising.

Figure 10. Phoenix rising.

Phoenix’s fiery phoenix imagery says it all (see Figure 10). It is a community of survivors intent on rebuilding human civilization after the predations of modern industrial society unleashed a tsunami of global climate change, famine, pandemic,  and war. The brochure features a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) that neatly sums up Phoenix’s philosophy: “It is in man’s heart that the life of nature’s spectacle exists; to see it one must feel it.” The quote encapsulates Phoenix’s rejection of modern industrial society in favor of a back-to-nature approach to life that favors sustainability and personal freedom. The Phoenixans are a libertarian society with communal traditions and a commitment to lo-tech (there is no electricity), environmentally friendly technologies. Each citizen is an individual freeholder who pursues a trade and barters for other goods and services. The society is governed by a council of elders and all citizens are expected to obey a central constitution called the “Code of Conduct,” which includes laws prohibiting violence and intolerance, regulations for “green roofs” (see Figure 11), protections for the right to free education and healthcare, and the requirement that each citizen donate 20 percent of their labor to the community.

Figure 11. Green roofs are mandatory for all Phoenixian domiciles. This design is intended to provide several benefits: it extends the lifespan of the roof, provides food, purifies the air, and increases biodiversity.

Figure 11. Green roofs are mandatory for all Phoenixian domiciles. This design is intended to provide several benefits: it extends the lifespan of the roof, provides food, purifies the air, and increases biodiversity.

Phoenix differs from the other intentional communities in the depth of its origin narrative. After the collapse of civilization into bloodthirsty bands of nomads and scavengers, an oracle-like woman named Themis brought together a rag-tag group of survivors and resettled what is now North Manitou Island in Lake Michigan (now transformed by global warming into a temperate environment), renaming it “Avani” (Sanskrit for “Earth”). In 2059, they founded the community of Phoenix to symbolize the fact that they were “rising from the ashes of their predecessors.” Three generations later, Phoenix numbers 500 members and growing.

Phoenix’s design incorporates elements from several course texts. The emphasis on green technologies and barter economies suggests a clear line of influence from Callenbach’s Ecotopia, while the council of elders is reminiscent of the respect accorded to elders in Gilman’s Herland. Yet, the most striking similarity is with Butler’s Parable of the Sower. The Parable is similarly a post-apocalyptic tale about the trials and tribulations of a rag-tag bunch of survivors who must brave a “Mad Max”-like landscape to arrive at a safe haven where they can start over. The oracular Themis, whose name is taken from the Greek goddess of law and order valued above all for her good counsel, is an allusion to Butler’s spunky prophet-like protagonist, Lauren Olamina, who leads these survivors and inspires them with her new religion, Earthseed. In the end, they found a community, Acorn, in the Parable of the Sower, which promises to be the seed of a new society. Similarly, the back-to-nature vision of the oracle Themis attracts followers who eventually come together to plant the seed of a new society, Phoenix. Both narratives are examples of what Lyman Tower Sargent has called critical dystopia, a vision that “holds out hope that the dystopia can be overcome and replaced with a eutopia” (Sargent 2001, 222). Phoenix thus combines an apocalyptic vision that critiques what is wrong with contemporary society—from our overreliance on fossil fuels to our exploitative relationships with the Earth and each other—while pointing the way to a compassionate alternative.

Debriefing Utopia

I decided to follow up the students’ final presentations with an exit survey to have them debrief about their experience with the critical simulation. I asked the students: Did it help you to improve your understanding of course material? Did your idea of utopia change after taking this course? Not everyone completed the survey, but the responses I did receive suggest the critical simulation was a successful “fourth leg” to the more traditional pedagogical elements of literature courses, namely reading, writing, and discussion, which were also utilized by this course.

The responses to the first question—whether the critical simulation improved one’s understanding of the course material—were positive and fairly uniform in nature. One student responded:

By putting ourselves as planners of our utopia and facing the challenges posed by the professor, I was able to change my mindset into actually thinking about how I would change the world and then this was contrasted by the authors’ ideas on how to change the world. It is definitely a key part of the class, and the discussions within my group allowed me to better understand everything and to get different views.

Another stated:

The group project was very effective for helping to understand what we were supposed to get out of this course.  The reason why it was so effective was due to the fact that we had to put ourselves in the realm that these authors were to attain our understanding of how complicated and visionary it is to have to design a utopia.

The comments highlight the benefits of situated learning that all simulations provide. By putting themselves “in the realm” of the authors they were reading, the critical simulation afforded them a better understanding of the conventions and complexities of utopian thought and production.

The second question—whether the course altered students’ visions of utopia—really got to the core of what I hoped to accomplish with the critical simulation. If one goal of utopia is “the education of desire” (Thompson 1977, 791), then by measuring how much a student’s thinking about utopia had changed from his or her initial conception of it at the beginning of the semester, I would be able to appraise how well the critical simulation had provoked a critical re-examination of the domains (e.g., government, economy, ecology, etc.) and themes (e.g., justice, equality, harmony, etc.) that are the central pre-occupation of utopian desire.

Unfortunately, the responses to this question were varied and inconclusive. One student reported a high degree of change: “I came to understand that it is through individual mindfulness that a utopian society is found. That differs from my initial idea of just communality. Utopia is only possible if every member of the society is actively involved in changing it or creating it.” On the other hand, another student reported little or no change: “I seem to be very consistent when it comes to what my initial thoughts of my utopia were and what [it] came out to be.” A third student had a mixed reaction: “[My view of utopia] didn’t change that much, it more so evolved into something much richer and more specific.”

Nevertheless, when these responses are viewed holistically in conjunction with the overall enthusiasm with which the students participated in the semester-long critical simulation and the depth of thinking in the final brochures they produced, I think this experiment with critical simulation speaks in favor of its incorporation within the set of go-to pedagogical techniques available to those of us interested in promoting critical thinking in our classes. I don’t think this addition will fundamentally change how we teach. Rather, if I may paraphrase my student, I think it will help us to evolve our practice into something “much richer and more specific.”

That said, in reflecting critically on my own praxis and how I might revise it the next time around, I think an interesting and necessary turn-of-the-screw would be to have students conclude the semester by writing critical reflections on their own utopias in which they interrogate, as I did above, their engagement with social themes and course material. This would involve asking them to speculate on the possible dystopian tendencies and outcomes intrinsic to their utopian designs and to the practice of utopia generally. Is utopia an inflexible blueprint for an ideal state that ultimately leads to totalitarianism as some critics have asserted (Popper 1994), or is it fundamentally a “principle of hope” without which humanity is lost (Bloch 1986)? This reflective assignment may help to prod those students who registered little or no change from their initial frame to critically re-examine their held beliefs and venture new ones.

Yet, my most pressing concern has less to do with the shortcomings of this experiment with critical simulation than with its successes. What happens to those students who succeed in critically re-examining the real-world domains they are ostensibly being prepared to occupy once they leave the university? How does a student actualize his or her new utopian desires once the semester is over and the classroom is exited? This paradox was keenly felt by one student, who responded in the survey, “Maybe one day I can change the world with my ideas and arguments. Until then, I’ll just continue on with my education and continue to dream of the future.”

The student’s comment points to the problem of agency that arises when simulation inside the classroom does not lead to comfortable assimilation outside the classroom, but instead provokes utopian “social dreaming” that arouses the sweet yet unsettling “desire for a better way of being.” The perceived disconnect between what is desired and what is possible risks producing the “miniutopia” that Bowles and Gintis and Stanford warn against. Yet, if my critical simulation created a miniutopia, the problem, in this case, is not so much that it left students “lacking a political understanding of their predicament” as Bowles and Gintis fear, but that the students lack a ready-made outlet for transformative practice with which to apply the political understanding actually garnered from the experience of simulating utopia. As a result, the risk of critical simulation is that the newfound utopian desire it produces may remain confined to the utopian no-place of learning, where it is subject to indefinite deferral and deformation.

This experiment with critical simulation raises a number of important discoveries and questions for educators interested in teaching critical thinking in any discipline. It demonstrates that critical simulations are engaging activities with the potential to situate meaning in ways that foster students’ critical thinking while enhancing comprehension of course material. As such, they provide a valuable supplement to standard teaching practices, such as reading, writing, and discussion. Though they require significant forethought, iteration, and time to develop, and sometimes result in minor setbacks as evidenced by my failure to incorporate specialized roles, these requirements and difficulties are true for effective teaching strategies in general and should not deter one from investigating this option. Furthermore, the replay factor alone may more than account for the initial investment of time and effort. Although the problem of where to channel the unsettling utopian desire for change unleashed by this technique remains open, it also highlights a challenge facing all educators interested in teaching critical thinking: how to bridge the divide between the space of practice and social dreaming carefully cultivated in the classroom, and the space of praxis and social change that awaits outside. In the end, I am content to have raised the utopian itch. For if, as Oscar Wilde famously proclaimed, “Progress is the realisation of Utopias,” then by simulating utopia with my students I have at least prepared them to decide what should come next.


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About the Author

Dr. Francesco Crocco is an Associate Professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) of The City University of New York (CUNY). He received his Ph.D. in English from the CUNY Graduate Center and has published several articles and a book on British Romantic poetry and nationalism. His recent scholarship focuses on game-based learning, gamification, and utopian studies. With funding from a Title V grant, he co-designed Levelfly, a gamified learning management system and social network that was piloted at BMCC. He is currently a PI on an NSF-funded project to develop a video-game-based curriculum to improve math remediation for STEM majors. His forthcoming publications include an edited volume on the broad cultural impact of role-playing games and articles theorizing representations of work and play in utopian and dystopian literature and films. Dr. Crocco is also the co-founder of the CUNY Games Network and coordinator of the CUNY Games Festival, an annual national conference on game-based learning in higher education.

Interactive Technology for More Critical Service-Learning?: Possibilities for Mentorship and Collaboration within an Online Platform for International Volunteering / By Willy Oppenheim, Joe O’Shea, and Steve Sclar

Interactive Technology for More Critical Service-Learning?

Possibilities for Mentorship and Collaboration within an Online Platform for International Volunteering

Willy Oppenheim, Omprakash
Joe O’Shea, Florida State University
Steve Sclar, Omprakash EdGE


International service-learning programs have rapidly expanded in higher education in recent years, but there has been little examination of the potential uses of interactive technology as a pedagogical tool within such programs. This paper explores a case study of an interactive digital platform intended to add more reflexivity and critical rigor to the learning that happens within international service-learning programs at colleges and universities. The digital platform under consideration, Omprakash EdGE (www.omprakash.org/edge), facilitates collaboration between students, international grassroots social impact organizations, and a team of mentors that supports students before, during, and after their international experiences. The authors represent both sides of a collaboration between Omprakash EdGE and a program at Florida State University which works to help students find affordable, ethical, and educational opportunities for international engagement. The paper begins with an overview of the troubled landscape of international service-learning within higher education, and an explanation of the authors’ rationale for collaborating to develop a new program model revolving around a digital platform. Then it discusses the ways in which the authors have sought to cultivate international learning experiences that are dialogical, reflexive, personal, and experiential, and it explains how a digital platform has been central to this effort by enabling students to build relationships with host organizations, engage in pre-departure training, and receive support from mentors. It then explains some of the challenges and successes the authors have encountered in their collaboration thus far, and concludes with reflections on the pedagogical constraints and possibilities for interactive technology within programs aiming to generate critical consciousness through international engagement.

I. Introduction

Within the broader trend of internationalization sweeping through colleges, universities, and even some high schools in the United States and elsewhere (Gacel-Avila 2005; Harris 2008), the phenomenon of international service-learning raises a number of interesting pedagogical and programmatic questions. As educational institutions in resource-rich countries (the so-called “Global North”) increasingly endorse opportunities for students to travel to resource-poor countries (the so-called “Global South” or “developing world”) to volunteer or intern in settings that include schools, clinics, orphanages, and community centers, what forms of student learning are they hoping to promote, and how do they assume that this learning actually unfolds? What are the ethical and pedagogical principles  —if any—that inform the design and implementation of international service-learning programs?

It is well-established that young people are leaving their home countries to volunteer abroad at an unprecedented rate (Dolnicar and Randle 2007; Hartman et al. 2012; Mcbride and Lough 2010, 196; Ouma and Dimaras 2013). Some aspects of this trend are not new: its roots reach back at least as far as the founding of the United States Peace Corps in 1961 and the United Kingdom’s Voluntary Service Organisation (VSO) in 1958, and are entwined with older trends of faith-based international mission work. Yet regardless of these various historical precedents, researchers agree that the trend has spiked dramatically in recent decades, spurred on by both government programs and a huge range of program offerings in the private sector (Rieffel and Zalud 2006; Leigh 2011, 29). Recent data suggest that over 350,000 individuals aged 16–25 engage in some form of international volunteering each year (Jones 2005). Within the United States, tens of thousands of young people per annum volunteer through non-profit organizations such as churches and charities and through for-profit companies that chaperone group volunteer trips or “place” volunteers with foreign “community partners” (Rieffel and Zalud 2006). Recent reports estimate the value of this emergent “voluntourism” industry at anywhere from $150 million to over $1 billion per annum (Mintel 2008; Stein 2012).[1] Meanwhile, whether under the banner of creating global citizens, preparing students to compete in a global knowledge economy, or fostering intercultural competence, colleges and universities are seeking new partnerships, developing new programs, and mobilizing new discourses that all celebrate the value of immersive, non-traditional educational experiences in international settings. Within this context, programs that revolve around international service-learning have become increasingly popular, and such programs have been the subject of a considerable amount of recent academic research (e.g. Crabtree 2008; Green and Johnson 2014; Hartman et al. 2014).

Against this backdrop, academics and mainstream media outlets alike have recently put forth well-justified criticism of international volunteering (e.g. Biddle 2014; Hickel 2013; Zakaria 2014). Some authors (e.g. Ausland 2010) have usefully delineated between various forms of this phenomenon within and beyond universities—distinguishing, for example, between mission trips, slum tourism, middleman companies that “place” individual volunteers, and faculty-led group service trips. Many argue that the practice of sending untrained, unskilled young people into sensitive foreign contexts on short trips for the purpose of “serving” is a paternalistic impulse that smells of neocolonialism (e.g. Crossley 2012; Simpson 2004). At the same time, a growing body of peer-reviewed research has argued for the socially and personally transformative potential of student volunteering through university service-learning programs, especially when those programs take an explicitly critical stance and explicitly orient themselves towards the pursuit of social change (e.g. Crabtree 2008, 2013; Hartman and Kiely 2013; Mitchell 2008).

The authors of this paper represent a collaboration between the director of Florida State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement and the directors of Omprakash EdGE, a web platform that connects prospective volunteers with autonomous grassroots social impact organizations and provides intensive volunteer training and mentorship via an online classroom. We share many of the same concerns and hopes described above, but our aim here is not to restate the common refrain that “good intentions are not enough,” nor to offer another aspirational but abstract vision of what service-learning programs “should” achieve. Instead, we identify three common characteristics of service-learning programs that we find to be deeply troubling, and then explain our ongoing attempt to confront and improve upon these programmatic features via an innovative model that revolves around an interactive digital platform. By sharing the case study of our own experience, we aim to raise new questions about the educative capacity of interactive technology within the sphere of international service-learning, and to generate further debate and collaboration in this direction.

Our collaboration grew out of a shared concern that many, if not most, organizations in the business of selling or facilitating volunteer opportunities meet one or more of the following three conditions: 1) they act as a middleman; that is, they “place” volunteers with organizations or in communities from which they are distinctly separate; 2) they charge high fees for this service and more or less guarantee a placement to those who pay these fees; and 3) they promote their work by insisting that a) volunteers will be “making a difference” regardless of their background or qualifications, b) even a little bit of help is “better than nothing,” and therefore c) no significant pre-departure training or preparation is necessary (see Ausland 2010; Citrin 2011; Hartman et al. 2012). We contend that the convergence of these common program features is deleterious to student-volunteers and the organizations they purport to serve.

This paper centers on our attempt to develop an interactive digital platform that enables alternatives to these trends, and its central question is whether this model is indeed a viable one. Circling around this question are many others: If international service-learning is inherently a distance-based and loosely-defined educational experience, then how do we track learning, and what can be the role of technology in this tracking? How can a digital platform be used to remediate many of the broader problems of service-learning and ‘voluntourism’? How can an interactive digital classroom and mixed-media curricula be integrated toward that end? What role can a trained mentorship team play in facilitating learning before, during, and after students’ international trips? And most crucially, in a world characterized by stark inequalities, is it possible to use an interactive digital platform as a vehicle for critical pedagogy that sparks social and personal transformations?

In what follows, we attempt to answer these questions by sharing data and reflections from our own experience. We begin by elaborating our guiding pedagogical principles and then describing the online volunteer-matching platform, classroom, and mentorship system that are central to our program. Then we offer qualitative and quantitative data to illustrate some of the challenges and successes we have encountered thus far. We conclude by reflecting on the possibilities for interactive technology as an avenue towards more critical and transformative service-learning.

II. Programmatic Origins and Pedagogical Principles

Founded in 2004, Omprakash is an interactive digital platform that enables vetted international partner organizations to build profiles, post positions, and recruit volunteers. Prospective volunteers search and apply for positions posted by Omprakash partners, and partners have full autonomy to determine when and if they offer a particular position to a particular applicant. Volunteers pay for their own travel and in-country living expenses, but pay no program fee to Omprakash in exchange for the connective services offered by the Omprakash platform. In early 2012, Omprakash administrators launched Omprakash EdGE (Education through Global Engagement) as an attempt to actively confront the most problematic aspects of the service-learning industry described above: namely, that volunteers are often provided with little to no pre-departure training and mentorship, and that the learning half of “service-learning” is often a disconcerting grey area. The EdGE program couples volunteer trips with a 12-week pre-departure online classroom, a dedicated mentor, and a required field-based inquiry that culminates in a Capstone Project documenting local perspectives about the social issue(s) that the volunteer’s host organization is working to confront. The program is tuition-based, and one of the motivations for its design was to create sustainable, not-for-profit revenue to support the broader Omprakash platform. Omprakash sought university collaborators for the pilot year and found a strong partner in Florida State University (FSU).

In the fall of 2012, Omprakash and Florida State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement (CRE) partnered to create an FSU Global Scholars program (http://cre.fsu.edu/Students/Global-Scholars-Program) that would offer a combination of online training and immersive international volunteer opportunities to several dozen FSU students per year. A particular focus of the program is to recruit participants who are from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college students, as this population is often underrepresented in these types of experiences and stands to benefit greatly (Finley and McNair 2013). In the first iteration (’12-’13 academic year), 37 students were selected to be Global Scholars by CRE administrators. These students each participated in the EdGE online classroom during the spring semester and then spent at least two months during the summer with one of Omprakash’s international partner organizations. In the second iteration (’13-’14 academic year), 28 students participated, and the online classroom was complemented with weekly in-person meetings among the Global Scholars on the FSU campus. At the time of writing, we are in the midst of the third iteration of the EdGE/Global Scholars collaboration, with 49 students involved.

Our work together has revolved around four pedagogical principles. First, we believe that the learning in international service-learning should be dialogical: learning should emerge via interactions with others and exploration of different perspectives, and various “truths” should be uncovered and interrogated in an ongoing process of exploration, rather than received as static “facts.” Second, learning should be reflexive: it should encourage students to reflect on their own positionality, to recognize and share their own biases, and to understand the process of learning about others as inextricable from a process of learning about selfhood and subjectivity. Third, learning should be personal, meaning that it should emerge through human relationships characterized by empathy, camaraderie, compassion, and humor. Finally, learning should be experiential, meaning that it should be grounded in empirical inquiry and exploration, and that students’ international experiences should recursively inform each other’s ongoing learning.

We make no claim to the originality of these guiding principles—indeed, we readily acknowledge the extent to which our own work has drawn inspiration from the broader trends of constructivist epistemology and critical pedagogy, in particular the work of Paulo Freire (1970). Yet our unique challenge has been to apply these principles to the creation of interactive technology intended to facilitate and support international engagement. The next section provides further details about why and how we have attempted to do so.

III. The Omprakash EdGE Digital Platform: Rationale, Functionalities, and Possibilities

Rationale for Using Interactive Technology

The prominent role of interactive technology within the EdGE/Global Scholars program is a response to several key contextual points. The first contextual point is one of geography and logistics: a digital platform is the most obvious solution to the parallel challenges of enabling students to connect directly with potential host organizations around the world, and also enabling students to maintain contact with each other and to maintain some semblance of intellectual continuity before, during, and after their field positions. Likewise, the chronological flexibility of digital learning means that a wider range of students can find ways to integrate the EdGE pre-departure curriculum into busy schedules.

The second contextual point concerns program costs and accessibility to a diverse group of students: in contrast to chaperoned “voluntourism” trips, the Omprakash digital platform can operate at scale for relatively minimal overhead costs, and thus Omprakash experiences are financially accessible to students whose less-privileged backgrounds might render them unable to afford more expensive “voluntourism” trips.[2] The key difference is that Omprakash does not spend administrative resources on placing volunteers or chaperoning trips; instead, its digital platform allows individuals and organizations to connect organically and arrange their own plans via direct communication. Omprakash invests time and resources into the initial vetting of its partner organizations to ensure a degree of quality and reliability, but the ongoing vetting process is largely driven by users’ reviews of their experiences, and this is another example of the ways in which Omprakash has been able to expand and strengthen its network without incurring expenses that must be passed on to users.

The third contextual point concerns the institutional and bureaucratic inertia faced by administrators at FSU and many other universities: despite a genuine intent to integrate rigorous academic content with students’ international experiences, universities often lack the funding and institutional will to incentivize or allow faculty to teach accredited interdisciplinary courses that explicitly prepare students to approach international service-learning with intellectual seriousness (Crabtree 2013; Hartman and Kiely 2014). Against this contextual backdrop, it made sense for FSU’s CRE to use the Omprakash EdGE online platform instead of developing a new on-campus course.

Browsing and Applying for Volunteer / Internship Positions

Omprakash administrators developed their volunteer matching platform as a deliberate alternative to the dominant “placement” model in which middlemen restrict direct contact between volunteers and their host organizations prior to arrival, and volunteers are not required to apply for specific positions. The basic rationale for this platform is that it provides greater power and autonomy to host organizations that tend to be marginalized within the dominant “placement” model.

In the dominant model, middleman organizations have little incentive to allow for direct dialogue between volunteers and hosts, because doing so might allow the volunteer to sidestep the middleman and avoid paying the middleman’s fees. Consequently, host organizations possess little to no autonomy to determine which volunteers might (or might not) be a good fit for their organization’s needs, values, and specific position openings. Likewise, volunteers have limited to no opportunity to learn more about different potential hosts and decide which one might be the best fit for their specific skills and interests.

The Omprakash model reverses this pattern by empowering partner organizations with full autonomy to solicit applications for specific positions, and to accept or reject applicants as they see fit. In addition, this programmatic feature is also an important component of students’ learning experiences: by requiring students to apply for specific positions and communicate directly with Omprakash partners, Omprakash challenges the embedded paternalistic assumptions that NGOs working in resource-poor contexts are desperate for foreign help, and that “anyone can do it.”

The EdGE Classroom

Course content in the EdGE digital classroom is divided into separate weeks that are sequentially accessible. Weeks are clustered into thematic sections, and each week is oriented around a single essential question. For example, the theme of Weeks 1–3 is “Good Intentions and Unintended Consequences,” and the essential question of Week 1 is “What might be wrong with international volunteering?”

Each week is divided into three sections: Learn, Respond, and Browse. The Learn section (see Figure 1) of each week is further divided into slides in which Omprakash administrators arrange learning content: a reading excerpt, an embedded video, a photo collage, a public service announcement from the Omprakash narrator, or any combination of the above. At the base of each slide, students are able to write observations and browse the observations of their peers. The Learn section of each week contains anywhere from ten to twenty slides and is designed to require 1–2 hours to complete. Upon completing the Learn section of a given week, students enter the Respond section (see Figure 2) and submit a written reflection or recorded video to a prompt related to the week’s essential question and associated content. After submitting their weekly response, students enter the Browse section (see Figure 3), where they explore and comment upon the responses of their peers. The end result is three ways for students to interact with classroom content and each other on a weekly basis: observations in the Learn section, responses in the Respond section, and comments in the Browse section. All participants are notified with an email whenever their response receives a comment, and mentors are notified with an email whenever their mentees post an observation or response.

EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

Figure 1. Cropped screenshot of a slide within the Learn section of last year’s EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.



Respond section from EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

Figure 2. Screenshot of Respond section from last year’s EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

Browse section of EdGE/Global Scholars classroom

Figure 3. Cropped screenshot from the Browse section of last year’s EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

EdGE Mentorship

In contrast to a typical Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), we sought to ensure that student experiences within our online classroom would involve a significant degree of personalized mentorship and instruction. With this in mind, Omprakash administrators solicited applications and built a team of EdGE Mentors who would work with FSU Global Scholars as they worked through the EdGE online classroom. The EdGE Mentor team is comprised mostly of graduate students and young professionals with deep experience as researchers and practitioners in fields such as international development, public health, gender studies, and anthropology. EdGE Mentors are geographically dispersed—the current team of seventeen Mentors is spread across locations including Atlanta, Berlin, New York, Oxford, Quito, Port au Prince, and Toronto—but collaborate with students and with each other via the EdGE digital classroom. For each cycle of the Global Scholars program, each mentor is matched with a handful of mentees and is expected to maintain contact with his or her mentees before, during, and after the mentees’ field positions. Mentors are compensated on a per-student basis.

The mentorship team has multiple nodes of contact with mentees. Firstly, mentors make themselves available to mentees via email and video calls. As students progress through the online coursework, mentors schedule “office hours” with their mentees, usually via Skype or Google+. Omprakash administrators request that mentors hold office hours at least four times throughout the 12-week pre-departure classroom, and mentors use this time to answer questions and build personal rapport with their mentees. Secondly, within the classroom itself, mentors are engaged in almost exactly the same way as their mentees: each week, mentors write observations, responses, and comments. Within the Browse section, mentors are required to provide a substantial comment to each of their mentees’ responses. Mentors are welcome to provide comments to any student, even if the student is not one of their designated mentees. While these comments are public to all users, the online platform also affords mentors the opportunity to send private weekly feedback to their mentees.

Blended Learning

Upon acceptance into the Global Scholars program, students are enrolled in a one-credit, pass-fail course during the spring semester. The on-campus course is facilitated by CRE administrators and meets weekly. These meetings are usually devoted to answering logistical questions and giving students time to discuss content encountered in the EdGE classroom thus far. These meetings constitute a key feature of the collaboration between Omprakash EdGE and the CRE: while the EdGE digital classroom provides space in which students can explore content and discuss with mentors and each other, the weekly on-campus meetings add another layer of personal interaction to the experience.

EdGE Curriculum and Capstone Projects

Rooted in Paulo Freire’s notion of conscientization (“raising critical consciousness”), the EdGE curriculum is designed to help students move beyond the superficial urge to ‘help others,’ and to work towards more holistic and reflexive understandings of the intersecting contexts in which they and their host partners are situated. The curriculum begins by challenging students to reflect upon the intentions and assumptions that underlie their desires to volunteer abroad. It dedicates a week to deconstructing the catch-all term “culture.” Another week is devoted to exploring the complexities of conflicting local interest groups and power dynamics that are often obscured by overly-romanticized notions of “helping the community.” Three weeks explore intersections of social, economic, and environmental inequality, and thereby help students locate themselves and their host organizations in relation to global configurations of power. The latter part of the curriculum teaches research methods—particularly the tools of ethnographic observation and community-based participatory research (CBPR)—so that students can complete observer-activist Capstone Projects which document the roots of a complex social issue and are meant to be shared with all members of the Omprakash network as well as other audiences back home.

Monitoring and Evaluation

The Omprakash digital platform allows Omprakash administrators to easily track each student’s observations, responses, and comments throughout the duration of the twelve-week pre-departure curriculum, and to qualitatively assess how a given student’s understandings seem to shift (or not shift) over time. Likewise, the platform also allows Omprakash administrators, EdGE Mentors, and FSU administrators to easily answer quantitative questions such as which pieces of classroom content elicit the most student responses, which mentors have the most consistent back and forth dialogue with their mentees, and how trends in classroom participation vary between students with differing background characteristics.

To supplement these data sources, we also administer surveys to our students on a periodic basis. Students complete a pre- and post- survey that builds upon established survey instruments, such as the Global Perspectives Inventory (https://gpi.central.edu/) and the College Senior Survey (HERI), and also includes original questions and constructs. In addition, students offer qualitative feedback and reflections on the quality of our program via surveys administered at the midpoint and conclusion of the pre-departure curriculum and upon returning home from their field positions. Finally, Omprakash administrators also solicit feedback from Omprakash partners about the contributions of each student-volunteer.

All of this is to say that we have managed to accumulate abundant data reflecting student experiences within our program. However, we will be the first to acknowledge that conducting meaningful analysis of this data is much more challenging than simply collecting it. In the next section, we attempt to draw some inferences from the various forms of data we have collected thus far.

IV. What We’ve Learned—Challenges and Successes

Having provided an explanation of the roots and structure of our program and collaboration, we now offer a deeper analysis of the challenges and successes we have encountered during our collaboration thus far. We focus on three core aspects of our digital platform: the volunteer matching system, the EdGE classroom, and the remote mentorship model.

Matching Volunteers and Partner Organizations

By requiring potential volunteers to apply for positions, establish dialogue, and build rapport with potential host organizations before they leave home, we encourage a bridging of the real and imagined gulfs that separate the two parties. In addition to reducing our administrative burden and thus making our program more affordable and accessible to students from a wide range of backgrounds, this aspect of our program actualizes a key dimension of our ethos: by allowing volunteers and hosts to engage autonomously, exchange information freely, and establish a preliminary relationship, we enact a preventive strategy to discourage distorted relations, perverse incentive structures and perpetuated biases.

Omprakash has been refining this aspect of its platform for a decade, and the platform has facilitated thousands of fruitful collaborations between volunteers and partner organizations. However, our experience with this platform has also uncovered some troubling ironies related to digitally-based dialogue and collaboration. To state the obvious: technologies intended to connect people do not always result in increased connectedness or in successful collaborations. Prospective volunteers can be very fickle when communicating with partners: in many cases, they delay in answering emails; they forget about scheduled meetings—whether due to time zone confusion or other distractions—and they express themselves in casual, lackadaisical terms which partners sometimes interpret as immature or unprofessional. Given that Omprakash partners are real organizations confronting real social issues and are not pop-up projects that exist only to facilitate feel-good volunteer experiences, this sort of digital interaction with prospective volunteers can be disconcerting or even offensive.

Omprakash prides itself on its commitment to providing an alternative to the dominant “placement” model, and collaborators at FSU and other universities share this commitment. However, at times it seems as though some students would be much more comfortable if Omprakash would just “place” them on a volunteer trip and save them the trouble of needing to browse real organizations and apply for specific positions. Likewise, some parents and university administrators balk at the lack of “on-site supervision” within the Omprakash model. Of course, all partners provide their own “on-site supervision,” but it seems that the embedded concerns of some parents and administrators will not be soothed unless supervision comes in the form of a well-credentialed American or European chaperone. The Omprakash digital platform is meant to facilitate direct collaboration between diverse people and organizations, but some prospective volunteers, parents, and university administrators seem that to prefer paying a high premium for a guaranteed “placement” rather than grapple with the complexities and uncertainties of building relationships with locally-run social impact organizations that may or may not actually want their help. The irony here is that volunteering abroad is ostensibly a process of collaboration, but many prospective volunteers seem intimidated by the fundamentally collaborative ethos that underpins the Omprakash platform and would prefer crisply packaged “voluntourism” products designed for mass consumption.

The EdGE Classroom

On the whole, FSU Global Scholars have interacted deeply and positively with the Omprakash EdGE online classroom. There was marked improvement in the level of engagement from the first year of the program (’12–’13) to the second (’13–’14). We attribute this to two main factors. First, FSU administrators facilitated on-campus weekly meetings in the second iteration of the program. Providing this structure seemed to help spur participation. Second, Omprakash administrators gave the EdGE curriculum a thorough makeover before the second year based on feedback from first year students. Omprakash administrators added a great deal of new content, removed content that had not resonated, and developed new tactics for structuring the material in the Learn section. For example, in the first year only one piece of content (reading, video, etc.) was put onto each slide, which meant that some weeks had over 20 slides. In the second year, to whatever extent possible, slides were crafted to deliver a specific message and multiple pieces of content were arranged on a single slide to tell that story.

The post-course evaluation completed by 82% (23/28) of the 2013-2014 Global Scholars provides a clearer snapshot of students’ experience in the online classroom. Only one student disagreed with the statement “I found the classroom intuitive to navigate,” and all students agreed that “the classroom was well-organized.” Nineteen of 23 (83%) students agreed that the weekly content was “stimulating” and 20 (87%) agreed that “the flow of the course from week to week was logical.” Nineteen (83%) agreed with the statement “I valued the opportunity to engage with peers and mentors in the weekly forums.” In response to a request for general feedback, one student wrote:

I liked how it had a curriculum set up that consisted of a learning, responding, and browsing stage. It really makes me feel engaged with my peers and administration. I liked how it felt like we were in a live class. It was enjoyable to learn things online at our own pace.

With regard to self-reported learning in this evaluation, 100% of students agreed with the statement “I am a better prepared international volunteer because of this course” (of which 14 (61%) “strongly” agreed). This is encouraging, but even more encouraging is the overwhelmingly positive written feedback, such as:

I really loved how Omprakash opened my eyes to a whole new world of international aid, public health, anthropology, and research that I’ve never known about.

This program changes your perspective on international volunteering and issues like no other. It helps you reevaluate any prejudices and biases you may not even be aware you have, and learn how to best be an informed and engaged intern. It gives you extremely valuable resources and a network of people to help along the way.

I’m sure that if I were left to my own devices, I would have been more likely to literally wait until possibly even now to START preparing. It made me consider a lot of things that I wouldn’t have considered, and throughout taught me several things I will use over the course of my volunteering experience.

IT was the absolute BEST program I could ever recommend to anyone looking to volunteer abroad. It was the most eye opening experience of my undergraduate experience.

It is exciting to find students expressing this level of appreciation for a web-based learning platform. The final quoted comment reads like a typical testimonial about a ‘life-changing’ experience in another country, and thus is all the more fascinating given that it was written weeks before the volunteer even left home.

Feedback like this makes us confident about the depth of learning that occurs in our online classroom, but we still see a great deal of room for improvement. The structure of our Learn section requires students to click through each slide, but it is difficult to gauge how carefully or carelessly students are engaging with weekly content unless they submit observations or responses that blatantly demonstrate a lack of understanding. Such instances are not rare and are certainly disheartening, but it is worth noting that the student tendencies of taking shortcuts and skimming are hardly problems unique to digital learning environments.

One of the most common critiques about digital learning is the high rate of attrition, estimated to be 93.5% for MOOCs such as Coursera (Jordan 2014). In this credit-bearing collaboration, we do not face this problem. If Global Scholars do not participate in the EdGE classroom, they will fail a course that appears on their FSU transcripts. But because it is a pass-fail course, our challenge is making sure that students are doing more than the bare minimum to pass.

Online Mentorship

EdGE Mentors are a crucial component of our effort to ensure that our online classroom is dialogical, reflexive, and personal. Our expectation that mentors provide thoughtful comments on each of their mentees’ weekly responses is the cornerstone of our strategy to ignite dialogue in the weekly forums. In ideal circumstances, every student’s weekly response will garner comments from his mentor and peers. In reality however, most but not all responses in any given weekly forum will spur this level of dialogue.

At the conclusion of the most recent Global Scholars session, we reviewed each mentor’s engagement with his or her mentees and provided substantial quantitative and qualitative feedback to each mentor. We analyzed mentor engagement and coded it according to seven possible categories: supportive, i.e. “This is a great post”; affirmative, i.e. “I liked when you said…”; follow-up, i.e. “How would you explain…?”; own opinion, i.e. “My perspective on this is…”; personal anecdote, i.e. “When I was in grad school…”; refer-to-material, i.e. “Freire would say…”; for-further-reading, i.e. “Check out this article about…”. This coding system allowed us to identify major trends in each mentor’s style of engagement. For example, one mentor’s evaluation reads that 93% of her comments were ‘supportive’ and ‘follow-up,’ while 40% were ‘affirmative’ and 7% were ‘own opinion.’ In addition, 27% of her comments resulted in a ‘back and forth’ (student responds to her comment at least once).

We believe our mentorship system is one of the most vital aspects of the EdGE program. It provides the personal touch that keeps students honest and involved. In the post-course evaluation mentioned earlier, all 23 respondents agreed that their mentor “makes himself/herself available to answer my questions”; 21 (91%) agreed that their mentor was “helpful” (two were neutral), and 20 (87%) agreed that their mentor “provided good comments on my weekly responses.” Nineteen (83%) Global Scholars agreed that mentorship was a “very valuable” aspect of EdGE and “plan to maintain communication with my mentor during and after my field position” (the remaining four were neutral to both questions).

V. Using Interactive Technology to Raise Critical Consciousness?

Interactive technology and service-learning are both on the rise within higher education, but there is little reason to assume that either will be a driver of social change rather than social reproduction. Despite the hype about egalitarianism and democratization that surrounds emergent digital learning platforms, we worry that the implementation and evaluation of such technologies are sometimes directed towards the goals of increasing efficiency and profit margins at the expense of student learning and transformation. Likewise, despite the buzzwords of global citizenship and collaborative partnerships that surround the proliferation of service-learning programs, we worry that many such programs lack substantive pedagogical vision and are oriented around placement models and paternalistic narratives that are intrinsically disempowering to those they purport to serve (Baillie Smith and Laurie 2011). The authors of this paper have sought to integrate the two trends of interactive technology and service-learning with the explicit aim of going beyond the buzzwords to cultivate critical inquiry and authentic collaboration in pursuit of social change. Our pedagogical vision derives from Freire’s notion of ‘raising critical consciousness’: a conviction that ‘knowing the world’ through dialogue and reflection is the first step towards creating change. The question, then, is whether or not such a vision can be actualized through an interactive digital platform—or at all.

It is surely too early to attempt any conclusive answer to this question, but the case study offered in this paper suggests that interactive technology might indeed be a useful tool for facilitating the sort of learning and collaboration that “critical service-learning” would seem to require. Further research should investigate not just what students are learning via the digital platform, but also how they translate this learning into their work on the ground while volunteering abroad and into the rest of their lives upon returning home.


Willy and Steve would like to thank the Omprakash EdGE Mentorship team, without which this article would not exist: Alex Frye, Eric Dietrich, Kalie Lasiter, Emily Hedin, Mayme Lefurgey, Miyuki Baker, Kit Dobyns, Shelby Rogala, Anabel Sanchez, Laura Stahnke, Matt Smith, Barclay Martin, Nathan Kennedy, Meredith Smith, Devi Lockwood, Nina Hall and Mary Jean Chan. W&S would also like to thank Lacey Worel for making sure the Omprakash trains run on time and Sonu Mahan and Adarsh Kumar for being brilliant web developers who can turn stale mockups into truly interactive technology. Finally, W&S would like to thank the other half of this great collaboration: Joe, Latika Young and Kim Reid. Joe would also like to thank Latika and Kim for making sure the FSU Global Scholars program runs so well.


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[1] The neologism “voluntourism,” though lacking a precise definition, is generally used in a pejorative manner to describe programs that combine volunteering with tourism. Throughout this essay, we use the terms “service-learning,” “volunteering,” and “voluntourism” somewhat interchangeably—not because we are unaware that many commentators have attempted to delineate between them, but rather because we believe that such delineations often obscure more than they illuminate, and that our criticisms and suggestions are applicable to programs that fall into all of these categories as well as the grey area between them.

[2] To offer one example of the sort of high-cost “voluntourism” program against which we work to offer an alternative: an organization branding itself as “the gold standard of global engagement” sells ten-day trips to Uganda under the slogan of “short term trips; long term impact.” Customers pay a program fee of $1,990 plus airfare, and travel in groups of at least eight. In contrast, a student participating in Omprakash EdGE and working with an Omprakash partner in Uganda for sixty days would pay a total of roughly $1,350 plus airfare ($750 for the EdGE program fee, and $10 per day in country), and would receive pre-departure training and mentorship that is unavailable in the typical “voluntourism” model.



About the Authors

Willy Oppenheim is the founder and Executive Director of Omprakash, a web-based nonprofit that connects volunteers, interns and donors directly with social impact organizations in over 40 countries. Willy received a BA from Bowdoin College, where he completed a self-designed major in religion, education and anthropology. In 2009, he received a Rhodes Scholarship and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education from the University of Oxford. As an educator and educational researcher, Willy has worked in classrooms in the United States, India, Pakistan and China, and in the wilderness as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. For over 10 years, Willy has been working through Omprakash to transform the field of international service-learning to make it more affordable, more ethical, and more educational for everyone involved.

Joe O’Shea serves as the Director of Florida State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement and is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy. He received a BA in philosophy and social science from Florida State University, where he served as the student body president and a university trustee. A Truman and Rhodes Scholar, he has a master’s degree in comparative social policy and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Oxford. Joe has been involved with developing education and health-care initiatives in communities in the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa. His research and publications are primarily focused on the civic and moral development of people, and his recent book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Joe serves on the board of the American Gap Association and as an elected Councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research, the leading national organization for the promotion of undergraduate research and scholarship.

Steve Sclar is the co-founder and Program Director for Omprakash EdGE (Education through Global Engagement). Steve received a BBA from the College of William & Mary, where he majored in Marketing and Environmental Science. He is finishing up an MPH in the Global Environmental Health department at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Previous volunteer or work experience in Tibet, Ghana and Iceland led Steve to his current role for Omprakash.

#FYCchat – A Case-Study of Connected Learning and Educators / By Lee Skallerup Bessette

#FYCchat – A Case-Study of Connected Learning and Educators

Lee Skallerup Bessette, University of Kentucky


In January 2011, #FYCchat held its first Twitter chat. Created to connect those teaching Freshman Writing, #FYCchat became a powerful tool for collaborative learning, professional development, reciprocal mentoring, and community formation. The following essay explores the origins of the chat, theories around Twitter chats for educational professional development, and a close reading of one #FYCchat around the topic of community and collaboration.

We have opened up this article as an experiment in collaborative, open peer-review. JITP has always been committed first and foremost to teaching and learning, and we intended that the journal itself—both in process and in product—provide opportunities to reveal, reflect on, and revise academic publication and classroom practice. We are so grateful to Lee Skallerup Bessette for allowing her article to be part of this experiment that we hope will reveal and reflect on the peer review process in order to develop a model for better pedagogy in professional practice.  Continue reading, and participate in the conversation.



About the Author

Lee Skallerup Bessette is Faculty Instructional Consultant at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) at the University of Kentucky. Her interests include Digital Pedagogy, Connected Learning, and Student-Centered Pedagogy. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and is also interested in translation, both literal and figurative in literature and in education. She blogs at College Ready Writing and you can find her on Twitter as @readywriting.

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